Would more supermarkets mean a healthier America?

By • Published: October 10th, 2011
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Could the phrase “You are what you eat” become “You are where you eat?” One popular theory about Americans’ eating habits and growing rates of obesity focuses on “food deserts,” areas where supermarkets and small grocery stores are mostly absent. Convenience stores and fast food restaurants prevail here, and many experts say limited access to nutritious food drags down the quality of area residents’ diets.

But a recent Archives of Internal Medicine article challenges the idea that grocery store locations really affect people’s diets.

Researchers studied the diets of young and middle-aged adults living in five U.S. cities. They compared the info with locations of grocery stores and supermarkets, and found that people living near grocery stores didn’t generally have healthier diets than those living farther away.

The study also found that low-income men ate more fast food when they lived close to fast food restaurants, but other groups weren’t affected.

The authors of the article emphasized that many factors influence people’s food purchases, not just store and restaurant locations. Supermarkets and small grocers sell many unhealthy products, and many people simply choose the cookie aisle over the produce section. There’s no guarantee these stores all sell quality health food, either. If the apples at your supermarket are brown and bruised, you’re probably not going to buy them.

Personal finances and car ownership influence the places people shop and foods they buy, too. Lastly, previous research has shown fast food isn’t always worse for you than offerings at more formal eateries. Both can sell greasy, fatty foods in huge portions, or healthy cuisine that’s reasonably rationed.

The bottom line: Building more supermarkets isn’t the answer. Getting people to eat healthfully is a lot more complicated than that.